National Book Award Finalist Kelly Barnhill Taking It One Sentence at a Time

Almost a year since a fall caused a severe concussion, the Newbery winner and The Ogress and the Orphans author is celebrating being a finalist for the National Book Award in Young People's Literature as she continues her recovery.

Photo by Janna Fraboni Photography


The National Book Foundation named its National Book Award (NBA) finalists on Tuesday, and author Kelly Barnhill was “flabbergasted” to be among the honorees in the Young People's Literature category. For Barnhill, 2017 Newbery winner for The Girl Who Drank the 

Moon, the prestigious honor comes amid a health struggle that has created professional uncertainty. When the winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature is announced on November 16, Barnhill will be nearly a year into her recovery from a severe concussion. She does not know if she will ever write another book. This is not the typical creative’s crisis of confidence, it’s the very real result of the injury.

In a June Twitter thread, Barnhill documented a fall that left her unconscious at the bottom of the stairs in December 2021, and the difficulties of recovery in the months that followed. Readers who didn’t see the thread might not have known anything was amiss for Barnhill, who did interviews and attempted a book tour for her two spring releases: The Ogress and the Orphans and the adult novel When Women Were Dragons. The attempt to follow through with book promotion, however, took its toll.

“I'm told that recovery takes time,” she tweeted in that June thread. “But they don't tell me how much time. And they don't tell me what I can reasonably assume is lost forever. Which things will simply always be hard. I suspect many.

“Somehow in all of this I had two books come out. I even went on book tours for both (talking to audiences: easy; actually traveling: hard; writing an essay: nearly impossible). It took a lot out of me. It definitely set my recovery back. But what if these are my last books?

“It's a real possibility. And I did want to give these books their due while I could. Maybe it was a mistake. We'll see.”

Four months later, Barnhill still struggles but is attempting to adjust and find signs of progress in the slow healing. She took a few minutes on Tuesday to speak with SLJ via email.

“Alas, I am still not able to write. Or at least not the way I used to,” Barnhill wrote. “It's frustrating, but it's forcing me to learn patience (which I'm terrible at) and forgiveness (which is easier to learn). But mostly, it's allowing me to stand in witness and in awe of the complicated and vexing human brain—mine, specifically. We don't really think about everything our brains do every second and the myriad of tasks and processes it manages seemingly without effort until an injury occurs and the whole complex circuitry comes collapsing down. I'm healing. It just takes a while.”

[READ: SLJ’s Reviews of the 2022 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Finalists]

Right now, writing remains exhausting.

“Writing makes me insanely tired, so much so that I have to lie down on my office floor, and sleep pretty hard, even if it's just an email.”

She’s learning to dictate, which she finds more difficult and tiring than she imagined, and trying to remember that things are better than they were even when it doesn’t always seem that way.

“What I am able to do is a pared down version of the process that eventually produced the seed that grew The Ogress and the Orphans,” she wrote. “Back then, I wrote fairy tales, every morning, on scratch paper. And I threw them out when I was done. Now, I can't do a whole story, instead, I just write a sentence that pleases me. Just one. Again on scratch paper or notecards, which make their way to the recycling bin when I'm done with them. Sometimes, I'm able to write a paragraph (which I also don't keep). Once I managed an entire page or two of dialogue in an unknown scene from an unknown story. I wrote that on the back of a piece of junk mail. I'm not precious about any of this. Just practicing. And maybe this is what it will always be. Or maybe not. But it used to be that I couldn't even manage a pretty sentence, and now I can, and that feels like progress.”

As for the NBA honor?

“I'm flabbergasted to tell you the truth,” said Barnhill. “I wrote this book in a state of mourning, a state of wonder, a state of unknowingness. I don't remember writing lots of it—though I certainly remember laboring over seemingly endless line edits. It wasn't my intention to write this book—or really any book at all. But I do appreciate that I had the opportunity to be present, to bear witness to the consequences of greed and divisiveness, and to encourage others to ask what it is that we owe to our neighbors, what it is that we owe to our communities, and what it is that we owe to the world.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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